Nordic Design Conference Pink Room

At Wildheart we love going to inspiring, thought-provoking conferences to enrich our knowledge, get new ideas and meet like-minded people. Plus, it’s a great chance to get some of our remote team together in person. For example, you can read Ehron’s experience of WordCamp Europe in A first-timer’s experience of WordCamp Europe — Berlin 2019.

In October 2019, I travelled to Sweden for the first time to visit Guy in his hometown of Stockholm and attend the Nordic Design conference. If there’s one thing I can categorically say about the Nordic countries – it’s that they know a thing or two about design!

Everything about this conference – from the venue and the speakers, to the networking area and the goodie bags – was delivered with design in mind. It felt uber-cool and was very well organised to boot.

The venue

One of the best things about the conference was that it was single-track. I’ve been to a few multi-track events where there are so many things going on at once, it can become really stressful trying to figure out: a) what you want to go to next, b) where it is, and c) how to get there! With just one main venue and 10 high-quality speakers, the conference felt easy, relaxed and stress-free.

It was held in a warehouse building called Magasin 9 in a harbour just 10 minutes from the city centre. This gave the conference an industrial feel, being surrounded by water and shipping yards. This was reflected in the shipping containers and wooden pallets used throughout the interior, and there was even an outdoor sauna and hot tub for brave souls!

The networking area

What I really mean is the ‘play area’. Entering the building, we were met with a dark interior full of neon lights. As our eyes became accustomed to the light, and we started moving around the space, we realised it was full of all sorts of exciting stuff!

Shipping containers had been used to create little rooms, including a fur room, glitter room and TV room. There were games consoles you could play on, a Lego table to play at, and even a ball-pit to play in! And dotted around the space were various food and drink vendors, which were all free (but with plenty of queuing): a candy floss machine, popcorn maker and ice cream stand. But, the winner for the longest queue at all times goes to the guy with the cute red van serving only the finest freshly-roasted coffee!

The food

I have to say, I was very impressed with how they managed to feed 400 people in a very simple, straightforward and tidy way. The main food was veggie, and you could opt in for various dietary requirements in advance. Whereas at WordCamp Europe they had many tables filled with little morsels of food that had people scrambling over each other to get enough, Nordic Design kept it simple – you just grabbed a box, sat down and ate!

Inside the box was a delicious combination of veggie dumplings, rice noodles, veggies and Asian salad. And they’d put up a marquee outside with long rows of tables and benches, so you could muck in with your fellow attendees as if you were in a mess hall.

Teas, coffee and fresh fruit were available throughout the day, and during the afternoon ‘fika’ (a traditional Swedish coffee break), the iconic and much-loved cinnamon buns came out to play! With fruit smoothies to boot, the Swedes definitely know how to do health-conscious, but tasty, conference food.

The goodie bags

Even with the goodie bags, the message was clear: keep it simple but high quality. With just 3 items in our tote bags, I for one was very happy with my freebies (not least because I’d just lost my favourite hat on the Stockholm tube the day before):

  • Orange Nordic Design beanie (very Swedish)
  • Colourful Nordic Design socks
  • Stickers from Nordic Design and Confetti (one of their main sponsors)

The speakers

Ok, now for the important part! We only saw 8 of the 10 speakers, as we had to dash off early, but I was very impressed with the quality of the presentations we saw. They were all in English, used great slides and plenty of humour, and all finished dead on time!

Here’s a summary of what we learned…

“Ways of Graphic Design-ing” – Prem Krishnamurthy

Prem started by claiming that nearly everyone is a designer these days, even if they don’t call themselves a designer. Even creating a social media post includes an element of design.

His main question was, “How can we create graphic design with a sense of ethical responsibility?” And he shared the 3 qualities he always brings to his design:

  • Bumpiness: Today’s world is geared more towards smoothness. But discomfort can open up new types of experience. Uniform surfaces are boring and irregularity can help take in complex ideas. Slowing down in order to comprehend better.
  • Juxtaposition: Our world is largely based on sameness, familiarity, run by algorithms. There’s an assumption that if we’re different from someone we don’t want to know about them, e.g. on social media we want more of the same or similar. We must embrace diversity or be destroyed.
  • Generosity: We learn the basics of generosity as children. Graphic design can be generous and collaborative, and the best pronoun for it is ‘we’. It’s a gift that moves in both directions.

He concluded by suggesting that the true power of graphic design is to listen, learn, reflect and give.

“How to run a design sprint without a panic attack” – Diamond Ho

Diamond is a product designer for Facebook, which means she’s designing for 2 billion, very varied, active people – that’s no small task!

Diamond shared her 5 phases of design thinking:

  • Empathise
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Validate

In order to prepare your design sprint effectively, you need to set out your:

  • Purpose
  • People
  • Plan

For the ideation process you can use a combination of:

  • HMW (How Might We) statements
  • Markers & Post-its
  • Storyboard

She concluded by saying that preparation is the key to avoiding a panic attack!

“Building a new interaction grammar with XR input” – Agatha Yu

In case you didn’t know (as I didn’t), XR means ‘mixed reality’. Agatha started her talk by explaining that we’re at the baby stage of immersive computing. A brief history of the computer interface looks something like this:

  • Keypress
  • Mouse + keypress
  • Multi-touch + GPS location + camera (mobile computing)
  • Hands + body + voice: multi-input environment (immersive computing)

She shared a very interesting way that she’d applied grammatical elements to generative design:

  1. Atomised representation: nouns
  2. Composable interaction: verbs
  3. Stylised approaches: adjectives

As a linguist and Content Queen, this piqued my interest, even though most of what she was talking about quite frankly went straight over my head!

Agatha talked about how technology plus intent gives us expression, but that this leads to human dilemma. And she left us to reflect on these questions:

  • How can we express what’s in our heads to other people?
  • And how, as designers, can we help with this? How can we make our design more generative, so we can more easily communicate with others?

“Disruptive Design: Harmful Patterns and Bad Practice” – Laura Kalbag

This was probably the most controversial of all the talk topics. Laura raised the issues of accessibility and profiling in the tech industry, but as marketers we rely heavily on profiling to ensure we’re reaching the right audience, and we also need security measures like Captcha in place, to keep our clients’ sites safe and spam-free.

Here are some of the issues she raised:

Accessibility

  • Low contrast text is a prime example of this.
  • Consider accessible vs. inclusive design.
  • We need inclusivity to make better technology.

Captcha

  • This is a completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart.
  • 4.25% of all websites use Captcha, which is a vast amount. 2.1 million websites use reCaptcha, Google’s free Captcha service.
  • This is a problem for people using screen readers, and is significantly the most problematic feature when trying to access the web.
  • reCaptcha v3 is invisible, so it’s better but still not entirely inclusive.
  • Surveillance capitalism forms the dominant business model of technology today.

Profiling

  • Big tech sites use profiles of their users to target and maximise profits.
  • Profiling relies on a very binary vision of the world, e.g. when creating a Facebook account you can only select Male or Female as your gender.
  • Profiling can serve as a barrier to equal opportunity.

Data tracking

  • So many products now track user data and use it to maximise their profits.
  • Some surprising examples Laura shared of companies doing this include:
  • Loon Cup: the world’s first smart menstrual cup.
  • i.Con: the world’s first smart condoms.
  • Hello Barbie: the world’s first interactive doll.

Laura claimed that we need new models, including new funding models, for the tech industry. And that better isn’t always good enough. These are some of the ways she suggested we can start to make changes:

  • Be different: be a better designer.
  • Be the advisor: make recommendations to others.
  • Be the advocate: for the under-represented.
  • Be the questions: question the norms.
  • Be the gatekeeper: use expertise to prevent unethical design.
  • Be difficult: keep bringing up the issue.
  • Be unprofessional: stand up for people’s needs.
  • Be the supporter: speak up for others, silence is complicity.

Her final message was: Disrupt the disrupters!

“Eye tracking the user experience – should you?” – Andreas Olsson

Andreas started his talk by explaining that eye tracking is about attention. We’re living in ‘The attention economy’ or ‘The eyeball economy’, but 80% of ads online are never seen, which is a pretty bad user experience.

So, what is eye tracking? It measures where people are looking, or how the eyes move in relation to the head. Our eyes don’t move in a smooth path, but in a series of short stops called ‘fixations’. It’s these fixations that eye tracking researchers are interested in.

Andreas suggested that eye tracking isn’t a stand alone solution; it’s just a tool. It needs to be combined with other user research tools, like interviews, but it can provide some very useful data. It can be very helpful in creating a natural environment for users, and we need to find a balance between natural behaviour vs. ease of analysis.

Eye tracking is currently being used to better understand all sorts of industries, like medical, manufacturing, and industrial – because user experience is everywhere.

“We Are Systems” – Ricardo Vazquez

Being a natural systems person, I found Ricardo’s talk quite fascinating as it made me think about systems in a new way.

He started by telling us about Pando, the oldest, most resilient system in the world. Pando is a forest in Utah where each tree is made from the same root organism. It understands its elements, interconnections and purpose, which is essential for the success of any system.

As humans we’re a product of systems. Cities, buildings, institutions, forests and people are all systems. Systems that are aware of themselves can change their behaviour, for example, Pando is capable of withstanding fires.

Ricardo explained that poor structure leads to poor behaviour and gave the example of the judicial system, where we have 12 elements (jurors) deciding the outcome of a case. But, we don’t know their individual stories, so they could be biased.

The anatomy of a system, according to Ricardo, is:

  • Elements
  • Interconnections
  • Purpose

Elements are usually tangible, e.g. a school has books, classrooms and teachers, but they can also be intangible, e.g. school pride and providing clarity. Elements usually suffer the biggest changes. Elements should remove themselves once they’ve helped a system achieve its purpose. If the elements are hard to see, the functions and purpose are even harder to determine.

Systems can be nested within other systems. A tree is a system within a forest, which is also a system. Therefore, you have a purpose within a purpose, and all purposes in a system must be in harmony with each other.

It’s important for a system to be flexible, to be able to change. Ricardo stated that “A system needs to bend but never break”. For example, the cells in our body change regularly but it’s still our body. If you need to change the interconnections or function of a system, you should re-evaluate if your purpose is still the same.

A system is a set of intended behaviours, not a set of objects. We shouldn’t get too caught up in just the elements of a system, e.g. the buttons on a website. We need to observe the behaviours of the people using the system to better understand it.

Systems don’t need to be complex; they need to be transparent and modular, and the user needs to be able to see all variations of the system. This empowers the user and gives them knowledge.

Ricardo ended his talk with a quote by Ben Hamilton Baillie, “If we observed first and designed second we wouldn’t need half of the things we build.”

“The Art and Science of Naming” – Sophie Tahran

As a linguist and Content Queen, I found Sophie’s talk very interesting; also because at Wildheart we have a product idea up our sleeves that will hopefully need naming in the near future!

Sophie claims that a great name makes your product more usable – by creating a shared language – and memorable. She suggested there are two types of names: proprietary & common. She divided proprietary names into the following types:

  • Eponymous, e.g. Disney; Burberry
  • Descriptive, e.g. American Airlines; Home Depot
  • Acronymic, e.g. KFC
  • Suggestive, e.g. Slack Facebook
  • Associative, e.g. Amazon
  • Foreign, e.g. Zappos
  • Abstract, e.g. Rolex; Kodak

Sophie explained that naming is important, requires structure, and shouldn’t come last in your product creation. Her 5-step naming process is as follows:

  1. Lay the foundation
  2. Brainstorm
  3. Refine, refine refine
  4. Get approval
  5. Drive adoption

Lay the foundation
Look at naming conventions. Which patterns do your names follow? Which patterns should they follow?

Brainstorm
There are lots of different ways to brainstorm, e.g. using Post-it notes, blue sky process, etc. You need to identify the entry points and look for overlapping sounds. Certain sounds invoke the same types of ideas, no matter what language you speak, e.g. V = vitality; B & T = reliability.

Refine
Are there common themes amongst your group or are the name ideas all over the map? Sophie suggested some stress testing: take 3–6 of your options and make sure they fit all the naming restriction categories:

  • Literacy: how does it sound, is it understandable?
  • Size: does the name fit the current scope of the product and leave room to grow?
  • Universality: make sure the name doesn’t mean something odd in another language; check for the curse of knowledge.
  • SEO: check domains, etc.
  • Legal: check copyright, competitors, etc.

Get approval
Getting approval for your name should be easy if you’ve followed the steps above. It’s best to make only one recommendation for the name, rather than including the entire brainstorming session. Specify the pros and cons and add some context. Usually naming comes down to: strategic thinking plus a gut feeling.

Drive adoption
Once you’ve decided on your name, make sure it’s updated everywhere and shout it from the rooftops!

“Designing for Transparency in Machine Learning” – Caroline Sinders

To be honest, this talk went a little over my head, but I still found it fascinating learning about what’s going on in the world of AI and machine learning.

Caroline explained that AI, machine learning and algorithms are really just pattern matching and sorting. She suggested AI is like salt – it’s not a meal on its own, but when combined with other ingredients it can transform a meal.

Data is based on human input. All data comes from, or is manipulated by, humans; therefore it’s a precious material. But algorithms are fallible. For example, facial recognition doesn’t always work, which can be very traumatic for people, especially at border crossings.

Algorithms look for cues but some of those cues might be wrong. So, Caroline questioned why more algorithms don’t have the ability for users to change their options. We should be able to elevate or remove information as it becomes more or less relevant. She gave the example of Spotify’s Discover Weekly algorithm, which creates a playlist of songs it thinks you’ll like. But the data could be out of date, so we should be able to change it manually.

Caroline concluded by stating that algorithms should be based on human rights centred design.

In conclusion

My overall experience of Nordic Design was a very positive one. It was a great day filled with fascinating information and inspiring ideas. Although there was a lot going on, the day felt relaxed, spacious and stress-free. I loved the playfulness of the break-out areas, and one of my favourite moments was kicking back in the ball-pit – I’ve been wanting to play in one of those since I was a kid!     

I really enjoyed visiting Guy in Stockholm too, and getting to know more about his life over there. It’s a beautiful city, which I’d definitely like to return to, as there’s so much to see and explore. And, as we share in our blog series Running a remote business, it makes such a difference getting face time with your colleagues when you’re used to remote working.